Saturday, 27 March 2021


”Compound in it’s directness...”
- Sleevenotes, ’Perverted by Language'

”Had forgot what others still tried to grasp...”

Okay, the Fall's last long player might have been a retreat and relative disappointment. But ’Hex’s ‘lava’ tracks such as 'Winter' suggested a different Fall, a Fall which would come to dominance with 1983’s 'Perverted by Language'. The lyrics and even the title of ‘Hexen Definitive’ refer back to ‘Hex’, leapfrogging the album which lay between.

There are self-styled ‘true’ Fall fans who take this as the beginning of the end, partly because it’s the first to feature Brix. (More of her later.) But in many ways it stands alone. It’s the post ’Hex’ direction which Smith previously claimed wasn’t there. It’s a leaner, more laconic Fall, pared down and stretched out, riffs extended past sanity, bass lines like train tracks heading off to the vanishing point. It’s more measured, more mantra-like, the nearest the band ever came to sounding serene and transcendental.

It’s less in thrall to the Velvets than in disciplehood to Can. Smith has said “I've liked Can since I was about 13 or 14.... I like the way it's open-ended.” Precisely hitting on the element picked up here.

It’s like an alternate history where the band had taken up a different template to 'Spectre vs Rector,' and instead of digging for demons had chosen to soar on wings. (Flabby or otherwise.) It’s the least garage-band, the – though Smith would truly spit at this word – artiest Fall album. At times the band even lose their signature lumberingness and become almost majestic.

‘Hex’ had hitched together two fast tracks - ‘Fortress’ and ‘English Deer Park’. This album closes by coupling a slow piece, ‘Hexen Definitive’ with an even slower one, ‘Strife Knot’. Which means that rather than ending the album fades into the ether, summing up much of its spirit. (No pun intended. Oh okay, pun intended.) ’Tempo House’ is another “definitive rant”, which even draws complainers into its complaint. But while ’C+C’ was most definitely a rant, this is more like an incantation, a spell cast over the bothersome.

Where ’Hex Enduction Hour’ had flaunted incoherence a sleevenote here insisted it was “compound in its directness”. Significantly it broke with the standard scrawl-at-a-wall cover ‘design’ of the previous four albums, for something that looked (in its own way) even artistic. For my slender dollar, it’s the finest of Fall albums with ’Garden’ standing as their finest moment. (If closely followed by ’Winter'.)

Except of course no Fall album was ever reducible like that. ’Eat Y’self Fitter’ is the only track which could have been on ’Room To Live’, another rough-edged parody song, taking its title from a Kellogg’s ad. While the incendiary ‘Smile’ burns all the more brightly when surrounded by such serenity, like a volcano suddenly blasting off in the Pacific.

”I got the idea from a book”

Bassist Steve Hanley has called ’Garden’ and ’Smile’ “the great unremitting guitar songs” of the album. True, but they’re bookends. The guitar on ‘Smile’ is intense and incessant, each iteration raising the ante. All tension, no release, it perfectly conveys when rage boils inside you but remains lidded, the rictus grin you fix while some wanker spews his bullshit at you. (Smith wasn’t exactly known for keeping his feelings to himself, but that’s the feeling the song conveys.)

Despite the frequent references to “anarchy” it seems less aimed at anarcho-punks and more those who expressed a fashionable fin-de-siecle feeling through their choice of eyeliner, to who “decadence” and “anarchy” were equivalent terms. “Would ask for lager in the town of Auschwitz” Smith spits in the Peel Session version. He once said it was “about the hypocritical type that says he wants anarchy but are in fact very bourgeois”. (Though ’English Deer Park’ suggested he had no more time for anarcho-punks. I’m not suggesting he liked anyone.)

Whereas on ‘Garden’, though the guitar’s equally dominant, it’s expansive, resounding, each iteration building on what went before rather than reiterating it. It’s as ominous and foreboding as ever but at the same time stately and majestic. Dary Easlea found it “fascinating in its excessive repetition”.

As already said, Fall tracks are not, in the main, works of poetry or literature which just happen to be set to music. Making sense of this band is simply not the way to go. ’Garden’, however, is something of an exception. It’s stuffed with allusions which do form a coherent picture. (Well, sort of.)

The title clearly refers to Eden though, as we’ll come onto and despite the band’s name, it’s more primordial than pre-lapsarian. And this helps us to realise the most fitting thing of all - this timeless track is about timelessness. Remember time had been a fixation of Smith’s since the early days, and ’Hex’ had brought to the mix the mythologised roots of European culture. And these kind of combine here.

The first of the two Gods described is clearly Odin. The Norse God was symbolically associated with the number three, for example with the Horn Triskelon. In the legends he hung himself from the one tree at the world’s centre in order to gain wisdom, depictions of which often show him hanging from one leg. (The same image as the Hanged Man card in the Tarot deck, leading some to infer it derived from the Odin myth.) Which could be said to make him three-limbed, here rendered as “a three-legged, black-grey hog”. (Well he was a shapeshifter.)

“The second God” is represented by way of contrast with images of linear motion - “fountains that flowed”, “blue shiny lit roads”, “the brown baize lift shaft”. If we didn’t guess from “the bells stop on Sunday when he rose”, then the repeated line “Jew on a motorbike” could be said to give the game away. (Slightly presaged by the hooded Friar on a tractor, who shows up in ’The NWRA.’)

As Wikipedia will tell you of Odin “the entire scene, the sacrifice of a god to himself, the execution method by hanging the victim on a tree, and the wound inflicted on the victim by a spear, is often compared to the crucifixion of Christ.” Added to which, both appear dead for a length of time, only to rise again. And if Odin is associated with threes, Jesus is part of the Trinity. All fair enough, but it does stray towards that “all stories are one” bollocks peddled by New Age gurus, suggesting that comparisons that are easy to find are oftenjust as insignificant.

But Smith seems more focused on the differences. Particularly when recited over that measured beat the image of the figure slowly turning, established early in the song, cements itself on the mind’s eye. So when the flowing fountains show up they make for something of a contrast. Why else would Jesus be associated with fountains, lit roads, motorbikes and phones? They’re not exactly Biblical references. It’s because one is the God of circular, the other of linear time.

More widely, the imagery constantly swaps between ancient/arcane and modern/trivial. Even the title could refer either to Eden or a manicured front lawn. In a typical Smithism, Odin’s ancient nature is conveyed through reference to “films on TV, five years back at least”. Because if Jesus can have a second coming, why not Odin as well? (“Wild Bill Hick shaves and charts at last. The second god's sad - he's coming up.”) Two ancient Gods, seemingly consigned to myth, rise from the depths like Godzilla, in a world we had foolishly imagined now belonged to us. Whereupon they seem most likely to ask “who’s been sleeping in my bed?”

It’s perhaps significant that the song segues into ’Hotel Bloedel’, which has the same juxtapositions of ancient and modern as a means to convey the recurrence of the seemingly dead. “Hidden fragments, surface now/ Repetitious history/ One more time for the record”, in it’s layering (with even the vocal lines overlaid on one another), seems connected to the “household pet” twirling to reveal Odin, or the reference to “a Kingdom of Evil book/ Under a German history book”. As Faulkner liked to say: “The past isn’t over. It’s not even past.”

If the theme of ‘Garden’, reduced to a word, is “return”, that of ‘Hotel Bloedel’ is “repeat”. History isn’t linear, a graph by which we can track our progress. Our history is more like the mind of a PTSD sufferer, a stuck record endlessly reliving some primary trauma. Brix’s raw screech repeats the chorus like she’s the Fates, part describing part proscribing, while Smith narrates the incidents which are actually recurrences.

And what’s a hotel but a reiteration of the same thing, stacked repeats of the same room, none of them being where we belong? Smith recites years as if they’re numbers on the doors of the rooms (“Two-oh-one-three”).

”The Place I Made the Purchase No Longer Exists”

“Warning!”, Smith had written on the Press Release for ’Hex’, “there are no blonde birds on the cover or in this record.” (A comment which is possibly a post-feminist statement, but more likely not.) Ironically, just such a character appeared first on 
’Perverted by Language’ and went on to have a greater role in subsequent events. 

And so some came to see Smith’s new wife Brix – glamorous and above all American - as a kind of Yoko Ono, smoothing out and even glamming up the band. The 1984 singles ’Oh Brother’ and ’C.R.E.E.P.’ were even accused of being...sensitive souls look away now... commercial!

And true to tell the Fall did lose something. But they traded it. Their golden age for their silver. Brix didn’t break the Fall. If anything, it was the opposite. Without her, they’d most likely have been unable to match past triumphs and sunk into a half life. She helped create a whole new band from the ashes of an old one.

They lost a sense of precarity, the feeling they were exploring strange and foreign territory. But they gained in horsepower. They’d been like a wild holy man – deranged and unpredictable, incoherent but compelling, turning in several different directions at once. They became disciplined to the point of being well-oiled, locking into a beat like atank regiment crossing open country. The old Fall were like semi-distinct alchemical symbols scrawled on a wall. The new Fall were like a thick coat of emulsion. The old Fall were wayward, the new Fall straight-ahead.

Sometimes it feels like Eighties Britain was full of great music, but due to a booking error it all got front-loaded and was gone before we reached the mid-point. If the Fall had appeared as a new band (which essentially they were) in the desert of those times, they’d have been hailed as saviours.

But Brix's input should be put together with Smith's obstinate and persistent refusal to serve up the oldies live. Gig-goers were lucky to hear anything more than two years old. So the Fall were always starting from Ground Zero, alwayssounding fresh and current. 'Repetition', the mission statement number they'd once played pointedly to piss off audiences, they'd soon started to get requests for. So naturally they'd refuse to play it, Smith deriding anyone who asked for it - “You do not pay us enough to dictate our actions”.

Perhaps Smith was the Dylan of British punk – drawing on influences outside of music, forever changing his style and backing band, refusing to ever look back, pursuing a persona in interviews as much as in song, specialising in vituperative "truth attacks" and never more so then when asked to explain himself. (He repeatedly insisted he had no time for Dylan, surely suggesting there must be something to the comparison.)

But that doesn’t cover the biggest overlap. Nick Southgate has commented “Bob Dylan’s lyrics were simultaneously supersaturated with meaning, while also empty vessels for listeners to import their own issues and interpretations.”(‘The Wire’ 262, Apr. 14)

Smith's songs play a still greater game of chicken, straying further from the brink of lucidity, like jigsaw pieces of concepts and images shaken together. He can show a Dada disdain for meaning which is positively explanation-baiting - “the love of Paris infects the Civil Service”, “God damn the pedantic Welsh”. (Phrases which often migrated from song to song.) 

Yet other lyrics form up into successions of gnomic yet evocative utterances, which seem to suggest at something without ever coming out and saying it – “the blue shiny lit roads”, “everybody hears the hum at 3am”, “the wings rot and curl right under me”. As Marc Burrows (no relation) has pointed out, Fall tracks are “more idea-worms than ear ones.” There's the constant tug of that underlying feeling that somewhere along the line it might add up to something. Better play it one more time.

In short, Smith had the knack for making any nonsense sound like it might make sense somehow. Even when it clearly didn't. Which is the single most important thing to understand about the Fall, head and shoulders above any other.

Not that knowing the trick stops it working on you. In fact it’s just part of the process. If Fall songs are full of magicallycursed objects, perhaps taken together they form one in their own right. We become like addicted gamblers returning to bet on the same rigged deck. As Mark Fisher said “[our] enjoyment involves a frustration – a frustration, precisely, of our attempts to make sense of the songs. Yet… if it is impossible to make sense of the songs, it is also impossible to stop making sense of them – or at least to it is impossible to stop attempting to make sense of them.” He later concluded, quoting ’Wings’, “There’s no way back. The place I made the purchase no longer exists.”

But with Smith it was more than not being able to make sense of the songs, the songs themselves seemed unstable. It was always impossible to work out whether the Fall were a raw-edged garage band, playing what music they could, or some kind of art-rock ensemble affecting primitivism. But it's more than that, even...

Of the classic bands I listened to in that era, only Swans and Throbbing Gristle rivalled the Fall for polarising reaction. It wasn’t even that people couldn’t stand them, they simply refused to believe that I could! It had to be either an elaborate pretence on my part or a symptom of mental illness. Which leads into Paul Morley’s well-know wobble, after one of the many times the band collapsed into acrimony – "what if he wasn't a genius, what if he was an old drunken tramp?" And life might not have to have worked out very differently for him to have become become someone who shouted at parking meters in the street which clutching myriad plastic bags.

It’s not that the Fall had bad tracks. Most bands have bad tracks and they had surprisingly few of them, at least in this era. It's doubting your ability to tell the difference. Even now, I can have my Morley moments and momentarily wonder if I really had just been kidding myself all along. Which seems part of it too. There's another thing Smith said to Middles: "When I started buying records, the ones I liked were the ones I could only half-understand. What I don't like about a lot of records today is that they're too clear. There's really no fascination or mystery left."

Marc Burrows (still no relation) decided to deep-end by listening to nothing but the band for a full month. Sounding surprisingly sane afterwards, he concluded “the Fall, it turns out, are not a band you can merely ‘like’.” Which would be a fitting way to end things. Except there's a better one - Smith's pay-off line at the end of Peel Session track 'Mess of My':

"Fill the rest in yourself."

(Coming Soon! Krautrock ist nicht tot.)

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